Book Reviews

Book review: “Dharma Delight” by Musho Alan Greenblat

Title: Dharma delight
Authors: Rodney Alan Greenblat; Pat Enkyo O’Hara; Richard Thomas
Publisher: North Clarendon, VT Tuttle Publishing, [2016] ©2016
ISBN-13: 978-0804845267
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Dharma-Delight-Visionary-Comic-Buddhism/dp/0804845263/

It is fascinating how small and interconnected our world has become (not that it was ever as divided and isolated as we like to think, but that’s a topic for another day), and how various artistic styles and ways of expression are being borrowed, modified, cross-pollinated, and used to convey very different thoughts and ideas.

Please bear with me for a few following paragraphs that constitute a lead-up to the actual review of the book above—it will all make sense, I promise!

I have been a big fan of Haitian art[1] for quite a while now, and in the last year I had an opportunity to get acquainted with its closest American equivalent, American folk art[2]—and, in particular, one of its most famous exponents, Howard Finster[3].

Matthew Arient’s Angel

“Matthew Arient’s Angel”,†1987. Credit: http://www.antiquesandthearts.com/

Finster’s art is unique in that it combines pictures and text—if you are thinking, “wait, you mean like the Japanese manga?”, you are thinking right, but the visual aesthetics, the text placement are very different.

Finster’s particular branch of Evangelical Christianity may not be my cup of tea (I am not a Voodoo practitioner, either—the animal sacrifice is a bit of a deal breaker—although I find Voodoo and other Afro-Caribbean religions extremely fascinating (something to table for yet another future post)), but something in me responds to the bold primal colors, the stylized figures, the verve, the energy, the child-like wonder at the miracle of everyday objects, coupled with a possibility of biting social commentary hidden just beneath the surface, the style’s potential to speak to and express what is conventionally termed “spiritual”[4] insights and ideas.

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“La Desente Erzulie (Mother of the Trinity)” by Frantz Zephirin (Haiti). Credit: http://www.medalia.net/

Now, Buddhist art as a whole, taken across all the extremely diverse, in space and time, cultures[5] where Buddhism has ever taken root, doesn’t lack a bit in brightness, boldness, brashness, and abstraction, although they are, obviously, very different from the Haitian/Caribbean/American Folk Art paradigms.

My personal journey in Dharma, though, aesthetically speaking, happened to be tightly intertwined with a specific type of minimalist, suggestive, elusive, monochromatic type of Chinese and especially Japanese Zen art[6]. This style still resonates extremely powerfully with me—I am not making a better/worse comparison here (can you talk about failing your Buddhism 101?!), but, when I was at Howard Finster’s exhibit a few months ago (side note: with any art, books, reproductions, Google Image search—all good, but they never, ever convey the impact of the original—if you have an opportunity, patronize the art of your choice in person!), I kept thinking, “Wow, this is great, this…zings, wouldn’t it be way cool to see something like this with the Buddhist message?”

Well, guess what—now you can!

This is where Rodney Greenblat’s Dharma Delight comes in![7]

Let me make something clear at the outset, to avoid any misunderstanding: Greenblat’s book—and his style overall— are NOT a mechanical pastiche of American Folk Art or any other specific art style and Buddhism.

To my untrained, unspecialist eye, Greenblat’s brush brings together, in a creative way, many features of the traditional Buddhist iconography, with a sensibility that hearkens to that of Haitian/American Folk/”Primitive”[8] Art (with a healthy seasoning of Maurice Sendak            thrown in for good measure)—all in the service of creating a vibrant, joyful, playful, very “modern” and “relevant”[9], captivating narrative that manages to pack in a lot of information along the way.

This is by no means “Buddhism Lite,” nor a new-agey simplification.

From the basics (the Four Noble Truths and Buddha’s story), to the profiles of various Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana tradition (those who are tempted to see in the future Buddha Maitreya a Buddhist version of messianism, need only to see the two pages dedicated to the subject in the book to be disabused of that notion), to delightful retellings of several Jataka tales, to expounding of a few classical Zen koans—the book remains an eminently serviceable introduction to Buddhism ab ovo, while offering plenty of delightful and thoughtful moments for a seasoned practitioner.

The most important thing, the bottom line: the images are FUN! You will never look at any depiction of the temple guardians in the same way after reading this book!

If one of the goals/desirable side effects/indicators of success of a Buddhist practice is the ability to see things differently, Greenblat’s whimsical fancy testifies to the depth of his personal immersion into Buddhism while affording the rest of us an excellent opportunity to re-commit to and deepen our own practices.

P.S. My teenage son has just informed me that Rodney Greenblat’s art is extremely “big in Japan”[10] and that he is well-known to Millennials as the principal illustrator of the game PaRappa the Rapper! Overall, my impression is that (Western) Buddhists are not as keen about bringing up their children “in the tradition” (which is a great thing—overall—most of the time—I think, but that’s a future post), but, if there is a natural point of contact for sharing something that’s been shaping one’s life with the digital generation—over the pages of a printed book, no less!—I say, grab it and run with it!

[1] Do a Google Image search for “Haitian art” if you are not familiar with this genre.

[2] Google Image search “American folk art”

[3] You can guess what’s coming, can’t you? Google image search “Howard Finster”!

[4] I have an extremely ambiguous attitude to this word and what it represents (another future post?)—but I can’t think of anything better for the moment.

[5] Yep, you guessed it—Google Image search “Buddhist art”

[6] Yeah, yeah, yeah, you got the drill—Google Image search “Zen art”

[7] See the Amazon link above for sample images or type “Rodney Greenblat Buddhism” in the Google Image search.

[8] Another term I rather dislike, but one has to use the language that’s there, alas.

[9] Can I invent my own language, please? The one at hand seems so beat-up and tired and…compromised sometimes.

[10] OK, I can’t help it: you have to look up TomWait’s song “Big in Japan”—if it’s not a meme, someone’s dropping a cosmic cultural ball somewhere.